Wednesday 30 April 2014

Heybridge Swifts - Scraley Road

Heybridge Swifts FC
Scraley Road

01621 852978

Ground Number: 367
Tuesday 29th April 2014
Heybridge Swifts 0-3 Harlow Town
Isthmian League D1 North - Playoff Semi Final


Heybridge Swifts were formed in 1880 but they remained as an amateur club until 1971 when they joined the Essex Senior League. As founders of this league, they struggled at first, finishing near the bottom but soon enough they got things together and started climbing the table. They finished 2nd in 1981 and they were Champions on 3 successive occasions before being allowed to join the Isthmian League. They joined the Isthmian  Division 2 North in 1984 and by the turn of the decade were Champions, which saw them admitted into Division 1. The success kept on coming and in 1996 they finished as runners up and were promoted to the Premier Division, which at the time, being pre-Conference South and North days was step 2 of non-league. They finished a best-ever 6th place in 1998 and remained in the Isthmian Premier until 2009 when they were relegated. A series of mixed seasons came and it's only really this season where they have had a chance of getting back up. They have been to the FA Cup 1st Round on 3 occasions, drawing league opponents but have lost all 3 against Gillingham, Bristol City and AFC Bournemouth and are yet to score a goal in the FA Cup 'proper' rounds. Their best run in the FA Trophy came in 1997 when at the 7th hurdle and Quarter Final, they suffered a 1-0 defeat to Woking. Several famous players have turned out for the Swifts, including former West Ham player who got the club a mention on the national TV show 'Fantasy Football League' Frank Skinner and David Baddiel mocked him a bit in that, par for the course for that show. Quite a few ex-Wycombe players have turned out for them too, including John Cheesewright, Stuart Nethercott and Hakan Hayrettin. Heybridge had ended the season in 3rd place, earning them the right to play at home in the semi-final of the playoffs.


When I contacted Anwar on Sunday about going to games this week, he was well up for Thursday's game between Holmer Green and Cockfosters, but so sure on Tuesday. So I planned to do one on my own. Knowing that he had already done Heybridge Swifts and that they had an attractive looking playoff semi-final on Tuesday against fellow Essex side Harlow Town, I pretty quickly decided that that would be my destination. I also deduced that the M25 would be a pig during rush hour, so I looked for nearby towns with interesting (IE Cheap) looking shops, a good pub and decent food. I eventually settled on Chelmsford, and time would tell if that was a wise choice. The plan was to get there around 4.30, have a look round the shops and get a meal before going to the ground. I'd had the pleasure of watching my team all but relegated on Saturday. Wycombe now face a real struggle to survive, and only a win at Torquay and a home defeat for Bristol Rovers or Northampton (against flaky sides with nothing to play for in Mansfield and Oxford) will save us. Aside from the fact that it's unlikely that either team will do us a favour, I don't have the greatest of confidence in us winning down in Devon. Still, I am all paid up and have bought my ticket and coach travel. I actually lost my Torquay ticket in all the kerfuffle post-match on Saturday and some kind soul handed it in, Maybe it speaks volumes that someone wouldn't even take it for free, but it does remind me of what a great club we have, and that there are some good people behind the scenes, even if the team are not up to it on the field. Too many times this season, the manager has been tactically inept, or the players have appeared not to care. It's been the worst season in my 23 years supporting the club, and angry supporters made their feelings known after staying behind after Saturday's game. 

On the day of the game I had my day off as usual and I wanted to get my hair cut. I also wanted to get a bit fitter and hadn't really made any effort since I went for a jog 2 weeks ago, mainly due to being busy and the weather being gloomy. So I checked the BBC weather website, there was no rain scheduled until 3PM. So I decided to jog down to the hairdressers, only finding out when I got there that it had started to close down on Tuesdays. So I had a dilemma - do I got back to Hazlemere and get it cut at a place I stopped using a few years ago as they always cut my hair too short. Or do I go down Wycombe, seen as I was over halfway there already? I chose the latter option and got it cut at a very good place called 'Chaps' who as a special bonus had a nice friendly dog there. At £8.50 it was by far the cheapest place in Town, even if it was a tiny bit more than I normally pay, but it was nice and new and well worth it. I also went to Poundland and got a few bits, including a drink as I was parched by then. Then off home I went, having jogged/walked about 9 miles. I then had my lunch and chilled for about 45 minutes before leaving at 3. The journey to Chelmsford was a decent one and I was there by 4.30. I tried to pay for 2 hours parking on my phone but they wanted £7 for some reason. So I just paid for 1 hour, and then paid another quid for evening parking a bit later. First stop in the town was Cash Converters where I got myself a copy of GTA: Liberty City for a quid. I was glad as it costs about £7 in CEX. I then had a look round some other shops before going to the Alehouse for a drink. I chose a half of each of the weakest ciders that I had not had in Old Duddas Cherry and Abrahalls Slack Alice. I then used up another hour by going to various shops, purchasing myself some Irn Bru before getting a pizza for dinner. It was only £3.99 for a 10.5" Mexicana pizza which was great value. After calling in at Home Bargains it was nearly 7 and time to drive to my game at Heybridge.

I got to the ground just before 7.30 and paid to get in and picked up a programme. Annoyingly the club shop was closed so I went to the toilet and continued typing my blog while I waited for the game to start. I bumped into the Spurs fan that I had met at Witham last time I was in Essex and had a quick chat with him. The tannoy was playing all England football songs to get everyone in the mood for the game. I went round taking some pictures of the ground and checked out Facebook in the final few minutes before kick off. As with at Witham a few weeks ago, Harlow Town fans travelled in numbers and were in good voice. I noticed how close 3 of the teams in these playoffs were - Heybridge Swifts, Harlow Town and Witham Town all being local rivals and the 4th, Needham Market being an hour further east. The home support also made some good noise and were encouraged by a highly enthusiastic tannoy man. I got myself a decent spot for watching, on the bench in front of the press box. The opening exchanges were good and entertaining but fairly level. Chances for both sides came, but without seriously threatening either keeper. Both sets of fans continued in fantastic voice throughout the game and it made for a great atmosphere. The visitors took the lead through ace goalscorer Alex Read who is closing in on 50 goals for the season. His shot went in off the top of the right-hand post after a series of sustained pressure from Harlow. The lead was doubled on 35 minutes when Leon Antoine followed up a loose ball into the box and finished with ease against home keeper Ashley Harrison. Like at Witham, they were making easy work of their fellow Essex side and looked like they could go on to score a few more. Despite some pressure by Heybridge in the closing stages, Harlow remained 2 ahead at the break. I returned to pretty much the same spot for the second half and like the opening period, it was entertaining but a bit cagey in the opening exchanges. It seemed game over on 55 minutes though. A home clearance was smashed into the side of Harlow striker Leon Antoine, he bought it down and controlled it and hit it past home keeper Ashley Harrison, who if I remember correctly used to play for Maidenhead and also worked at the Wycombe Wanderers football in the community. The game continued with chances for both sides and Heybridge were unlucky not to pull one back when they hit the post. As the game wore on, the chances got few and far between. But credit to the Heybridge fans, they were absolutely fantastic and didn't stop singing all night, despite never looking like getting anything from the game. The game ran pretty late, until 9.45 but there were no further goals. It had been a good contest though and Harlow were well worth their win and I expect them to triumph in the final on Sunday. It was a pretty decent drive home, with minimal delay, just the usual 50mph through roadworks on the M25. I made good time and was back home by 11.15. I watched TV for a bit before going to bed around midnight.


SCRALEY ROAD is a great ground for step 4 and is easily good enough for a couple of levels up in the Conference South. The side where you come in contains the tea bar, the clubhouse and the club shop, neither of which I used on the night. It is also an open terrace. The opposite end is a covered terrace holding around 600. To the left is a stand holding just under 400 on red and blue seats. Finally on the right is covered benches alongside the press area and tannoy box, this has a capacity of around 400. When driving to the ground I saw a chip shop nearby but didn't get much chance to explore. I'd say the ground was well worth a visit, it's one of the better ones in the league and had a great atmosphere when I went. 

Saturday 26 April 2014

Newton Aycliffe - Moore Lane Park

Newton Aycliffe FC
Moore Lane Park
Moore Lane Sports Club
County Durham

Ground Number: 364
Monday 21st April 2014
Newton Aycliffe 1-1 Shildon
Northern League Division 1


Newton Aycliffe FC was formed in 1965 and played local football before joining the Wearside League in 1983. They stayed there until 1993 when they resigned mid-season and played local football again until 2008. This time they were a lot stronger and they won the league at the first attempt. The Northern League accepted their application and they joined Division 2, finishing 9th in their first season, and winning the league at the second attempt. A solid 9th placed finish in their first season was a real tonic, and they followed that up with a safe 17th placed finish last season. They made the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup this season, their best ever in that competition. In the FA Vase, they reached the 3rd Round in 1991/92. They were in 18th at the time of play.

Shildon meanwhile were in 3rd place and with a slim chance of the title if results went their way. The club was formed in 1899 as Shildon Athletic, changing their name to their current one in 1923. They have been in the Northern League for most of their existence. They had their most successful period in the 1930s, winning the title of 5 occasions. Since then they were runners up in 2010. In the FA Cup, they have reached the 1st Round twice, most recently in 2003 when they lost 7-2 to Notts County. Like many Northern League sides, they have done well in the FA Vase. Last season they reached the semi-final before losing to Kent side Tunbridge Wells.


This was always going to be the choice for the 3rd game of the day, being that it was the only option open to me. I had briefly been to Newton Aycliffe's ground a few years earlier just to get pictures and was more than happy to see a game there. After seeing Blyth humbled I jumped in my car and made my way back down. The estimated time of arrival was 5.51, but luckily the Tyne Tunnel was not as busy this time and I was there and parked up by 5.45. 
I went straight into the ground for the 6pm kick off and said hello to Laurence and Chris who organise lots of groundhops for other leagues. I also saw the Hartlepool fan that had been on the groundhop and he was happy that his team won and are now clear of relegation. Wycombe meanwhile had lost 1-0 at Fleetwood, despite the home team being down to 10 men for 80 minutes of the game. This means that Wycombe are still deep in the relegation mire, and in what has been the worst League 2 I have ever seen must raise concerns. We now have 2 games to save our football league status and I am not overly confident, it must be said.

Newton Aycliffe started the stronger side and took the lead after 5 minutes with a goal through Hedley. The game wasn't the best and wasn't the worst, but chances were quite limited. In any case, it was all square, 1-1 being quite a recurring theme of this trip. That equaliser came from the penalty spot and was deserved for the visitors, though their slim chances of the title have now evaporated. After the game, I had planned to meet some mates, Adam and Ryan, in a pub in Darlington for a pint before I made the long journey South. I got there about 8.10 and had a chat for half an hour, and it was a nice way to end the weekend. The journey back was indeed a long one. After stopping at services a couple of times for the toilet and something to eat, I finally rolled in just short of 1am. I was knackered, a feeling which was to last throughout the week, but it had been well worth it, with some nice places seen and some great people met.


MOORE LANE PARK is a pretty basic ground, though typical of many at step 5. The 2 stands are all along one side and are of the metal type, a combination of seating and standing for around 350. I didn't use the clubhouse or tea bar, but the club shop was excellent, giving away old programmes for free. I took a few and also picked up a previous seasons shirt for £5. I will probably never wear it, but it looked nice and you can't go wrong for a fiver.

Friday 25 April 2014

Blyth Spartans - Croft Park

Blyth Spartans FC
Croft Park
Plessey Road
NE24 3JE

Ground Number: 363
Monday 21st April 2014
Blyth Spartans 0-7 Whitby Town
NPL Premier


Blyth Spartans were formed in 1899 but their most famous hour came in the 1977-78 season when they reached the FA Cup 5th Round. They had to battle all the way from the 1st Qualifying Round, beating Shildon, Crook Town, Consett & Bishop Auckland before meeting football league opponents Chesterfield in the 2nd Round. They triumphed 1-0 before beating Enfield by the same scoreline. Then they beat Stoke City who the previous season had been in the top tier of English football. Wrexham were the opponents in the 5th Round and the Welsh side was given a damn good fight, only winning in a replay, played at St James Park, Newcastle, in front of a crowd of over 30,000. They were in the Northern League at the time and a few years earlier had their best ever season in that league. In the 1974-75 season, they went the entire year unbeaten, winning 30 out of their 36 games. They made the step up to the NPL in 1994 and won the 1st Division at the first attempt, gaining promotion to the Premier in the process. In 2006 they went a step further, up to the Conference North, where they stayed until 2012, finishing a best-ever 7th in 2007. In their first season back in the NPL, they finished 16th, but a vast improvement on that saw them just outside the playoffs at the start of play.


When looking at the Northern League Groundhop, I noted that I had already been to one of the grounds at Spennymoor. Luckily it was the 3PM kickoff so I would have a decent amount of choice. In the end, there were about 4 candidates and chose to take a brief break from the Northern League and head up to Blyth Spartans. They played 2 levels higher and had bags of history, a lot of which I learned from the book '2 wins from Wembley' about their FA Cup run to the 5th Round in 1978. After the Billingham game, I made the 90-minute journey to Blyth. There was around a 15-minute delay around the Tyne Tunnel for some reason. But I was soon on my way and got to Blyth Spartans just before 2. First stop was something to eat. I had seen a chippy when driving up to the ground and so I made my way there. I had Haggis and Chips for £2.70 and it turned out delicious, so I was well pleased with that. After that, I went into the ground and visited the club shop. They had a sale on so I bought a pack of 4 air fresheners, a pen and a drawstring bag for £3. I then went to the bar for a pint of Strongbow before going and taking some pictures of the ground.

The Whitby fans were in great voice, but the miserable Blyth stewards poked their nose in where they could, confiscating the away fans megaphone. Apart from that though, everyone at the club was great and it was a really decent ground, certainly good enough for the Conference Premier and nicer than some in the league. Blyth were dire and it was hard to believe that they were so close to the playoffs, such was the mid-table visitors' dominance. One Blyth fan was not such a good loser, telling the Whitby manager to f**k off until he was confronted and forced to apologise by the said man in charge!. It turned out the Blyth manager Tom Wade had rested a load of players ahead of tomorrow's Northumberland Senior Cup Final game. Tom Portas opened the scoring with a great volley after six minutes. On 36 minutes Whitby made it 2-0 with a Craig Farrell penalty awarded for a trip in the area. Just before halftime, it was 3-0, Graeme Armstong netting a rebound after the original shot had been saved. Lee Mason scored the fourth on 51 minutes with an excellent volley before former Mansfield player Adam Rundle curled a shot into the top corner with 20 minutes to go for number five. Farrell got his second when he converted a cross with a few minutes to go and Armstong completed his brace with a close-range finish in injury time. I was really surprised at the margin of the score, even taking into account the players being rested, it should not have been that big. In any case, the reason was because of having 2 games in 2 days, which isn't the greatest of ideas by the fixture planners. In that game, they lost 4-0 to Newcastle United U21's, so they did at least improve, even if they lost in the end. It had been the biggest scoreline I had seen since Wycombe had lost by the same scoreline at home to Shrewsbury Town in 2008. After the game, it was off to the final game of my time away, at Newton Aycliffe.


CROFT PARK is a great stadium for the NPL Premier and would most probably be OK for the Conference Premier. The only seated area is elevated above the pitch and has a capacity of just over 500. The other 3 sides are covered terraces, with a total capacity of 4500. The club shop was excellent with a wide range of items at good prices. The bar was very smart, though only had Strongbow on tap, but it did the job all the same. I didn't use the tea bar, but there is a cracking chippy a few minutes walk away, so I'd recommend going there.